Rotterdam 2013. Two as One as Many

Since I essentially dedicated my last dispatch to despair, I feel this one should be to tenderness.

Above: Kira Muratova's Brief Encounters (left) and Long Farewells (right).

Tender, like the night, are the first two feature films by Ukrainian auteur Kira Muratova, subject of a large retrospective here in Rotterdam. Brief Encounters (1967) and Long Farewells (1971) form a immanently sensitive, dreamy diptych about being two rather than one. Muratova's first feature stars the director herself as an energy-filled, can-do successful Soviet bureaucrat living in the city, and who is counterposed by a young girl from the country who comes to work for her as a maid. They both dream of their own beloved men—who turns out to be but one man, the same man, a surveyor “looking for silver,” shared between the two of them, for Muratova when he is in the city and for the younger girl when the man goes prospecting in the countryside. This structural conceit underpins the discreet, empathetic, and unresolved portraits of two young Soviet women of different aspirations and place; really one woman split in two over the same object (though not necessarily the same exact desire).

There is no central focus in Long Farewells, but the idea is similar, though more lilting: a teenage boy living with his divorced mother begins to grow up and restless and the twain are split. The little fractured family is drawn apart and together and apart again through their individual struggles. These are similar, both semi-sexual and semi-social, and likewise each about his and her own personally disappointing but voluptuous existences, unsettled and in constant development. So again a single person split in two, driven two ways in a parabola of both great distance and very close togetherness. They are gentle works which contain quietly but fully the kind of near-Fellini-esque cacophony of bustle and impressions that fill much of Muratova's later films. As befits two films that poise their narratives between two poles that yearn to both repulse one another and also to be drawn and welded together, Brief Encounters and Long Farewells beautifully devote themselves equally to each person's character, each existence and each view, yet overlap the style to suggest these are but divergent viewpoints emanating from the same core experience.

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Jean-Claude Brisseau, like many older, contemporary cinephile filmmakers, has retreated to the control and freedom afforded by low budget digital cinema with La fille de nulle part (The Girl from Nowhere), made in the director's own apartment and starring himself in as the film's protagonist. The retreat provides a fruitful simplicity for a blend of fantasy symbolism and humble reality, allowing it to blossom into sweetness and tragedy. I encourage you to read Notebook comrade Boris Nelepo's eloquent and moving piece on the film, Brisseau and Victor Hugo for Cinema Scope, which says more than I could.

As Nelepo suggests, the film is deeply tied to a short feature Brisseau made for French television in 1982, Les ombres, in which a domestic family is turned on its head by the mother's decision to live within the apartment but independently. Restricted to showing only the interiors of the flat, the film views the wife's radical revision as a kind of surrealist-fantastic intrusion into the banal, producing a stoic and moving suffering from her husband and a profound jump to philosophic maturity by their young daughter.

In the new film, Brisseau lives alone long after the death of his wife, and on the doorstep appears a beautiful young street waif, beaten and bloody. She too, then, is injected into the contained world of a domicile—here that of Brisseau, a “mathematician” nevertheless working on a book of the delusions mankind tells itself in order live (including youth and love), and, as we hear from a former student, more fitted to teaching philosophy and cinema, since the cinephilia apparent in the director's real flat goes undisguised. The relationship between the older man and much younger woman in this space is just about all that the film has, but from it we see so many things: love and need, husband-wife, father-daughter, artistic inspiration and destitution, the domestic banal and handmade flights, sub-Méliès, of ghosts, dreams and nightmares. The film's humility is at first startling but immediately moving, tied as it is to such frugal means of production, unabashed use of the director's image, body, and home, all as tools for imagination and life. It has a directness to it that seems serene and fearless, and from this colorful, fertile contentment is all the more softly vibrant with life and suggestions of the beyond.

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The sweet, complex connection between two things seems a thread manifest here, with these films. They call to my mind, abstractly, a digital short film by David Gatten, boldly and surprisingly included in the Tiger Competition (along with Sergei Loznitsa's Letter, written about in my previous dispatch), with the unfurling title of By Pain and Rhyme and Arabesques of Foraging.

Inspired by the 17th century naturalist Robert Boyle, it is a lovely study in adjoining colors—or perhaps, more precisely, the movement from one color conjured to the next, both within the frame and between them. I saw it once and its specificities within its miniature multitude have since slipped from my mind, but I think this is due not to its brief length or its speed of montage—as always with the films of Gatten I've seen, mathematically rhythmic yet organically fluid—so much as its rapidity of colorvision. I wanted to use the word “quicksilver” to imply its sense of viscous speed, but I fear that carries connotations of black and white. Instead, the majority of By Pain and Rhyme's imagery and montage are reading the prismatic splay of light across the frame, in images as concrete as the glow of light off a page of text (Boyle's work, perhaps, which is transcribed in separate, beautiful title card proclaiming the beginning of an “experimental history of colours”), or a later development in the film's movement (inspired, the notes tell me, by the structure of a Petrarchan sonnet, a form I'm not visually familiar with) towards gleaming lens flair and bristlingly luminous geometric motes.

Always movement, always movement-to: adjacency, adjoinment, spectrum-spanning and bleeding changes, from one shade to another. It is as otherworldy as Brisseau's gestures to the infinite night, yet as in all Gatten as simple as a documentary of material collected by light into a lens. Thus two things longing for one, or one irrevocably (prismatically?) split into two—or many.

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